Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Press Releases for Ariadne

I went to a reading by writer Barbara Kingsolver tonight at a local bookstore and enjoyed hearing her read and talk about her new book. I went to the reading partly out of interest in Ms. Kingsolver's work and partly for inspiration. It's always enlightening to hear other people talk about how they work and what inspires them.

I wanted to ask her the same question I asked of Neil Gaiman a few years ago: Do you know where your stories are going before you write them, or do you find out as you go along? She partly answered the question in talking about the thought she puts into her stories before she starts writing. I especially liked what she said about deciding at the beginning what she wants the reader to get from the book and using that as a guide; I hadn't thought about doing that with fiction, but yes, it makes sense. I'm going to try it the next time I attempt a novel (it's got to happen sometime because I already have a title).

I'm not, like Ms. Kingsolver, a methodical writer. I'm more from the Writing by the Seat of Your Pants School of Composition, which has its drawbacks. (Plan blog posts in advance -- are you kidding?) Outlines have always seemed a little artificial to me, and I've always had fun writing just to see what would show up on the page. When I started my dissertation, I struggled to corral my thoughts, which ran all over the place like a herd of stray cats. I had to work hard to organize my ideas and was in despair at the seeming ease with which other people got their thesis in focus. What works for a shorter piece isn't necessarily appropriate for a dissertation.

Two years ago, I was just finishing my first two chapters. At the time I didn't know that I was off to a good start, just that it was hard work each and every time I sat down to write. It's like that sometimes.

Happily, it worked out over time, the dissertation got done, and I turned it into a book, which is out there for the world to see. I think it turned out great and would like everyone to wind up with one in their Christmas stocking, if at all possible, so that I can give readings just like Ms. Kingsolver and have my own driver.

I could have paid someone to write a press release for me, but as I told my sister the other day, I used to write press releases for a living and am not sure someone else can write a better one than I can do myself.

So here's my homemade press release, guaranteed to tell the truth and guide you in your buying decision:


Dazzling New Talent Scores Big With First Book

Lexington, Kentucky - November 27, 2012 - Ariadne is a king's daughter living the good life on Crete when a dark secret from her family's past catches up with the present, threatening to destroy her romance with a prince on a mission. When Theseus arrives on Crete as part of a contingent due to be sacrificed to the insatiable Minotaur, Ariadne is smitten, even in the face of her father's anger. As keeper of the labyrinth's secrets, she is the one person who can save Theseus and the Athenian youths by revealing the labyrinth's innermost ways. Moved by love and haunted by fear, Ariadne must decide between loyalty to her father and country and loyalty to the sinewy Theseus. Like any good myth, this story has it all: love, death, family, sex, betrayal, a boat, and a man with a bull's head.

But behind the story you think you know lies an even more exciting terrain. Just who is Ariadne, after all, and why does she know the secrets of the labyrinth if Daedalus built it? Who is the Minotaur, really, and what does everyone have against him? If Theseus is such a prince, what's up with him and Phaedra? What really happened on Naxos? Why is everybody doing the Crane Dance? And why do these characters show up again and again in different guises over the centuries, almost recognizable but tantalizingly transformed?

Ms. Hackworth handles all of these questions with grace and aplomb, guiding you through the bewildering byways of labyrinth lore with the assurance of one who has been there, proving that it really can be solved by walking. You will be a-mazed as the Holy Grail, A Midsummer Night's Dream, a mysterious white whale, and even Bruce Springsteen flash before your eyes in this no-holds-barred tell-all. Solved by Walking: Paradox and Resolution in the Labyrinth is available now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell's, and other online retailers, or you can always go to your favorite bookseller, be shocked if it isn't there, and ask for it. This timeless classic is sure to be on everyone's bestseller list, so beat the rush and get your copy today!


(I told you I could do it.)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Better Angels

Yesterday I went to see Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln. I wanted to see it but was a little apprehensive since the trailer made it look rather dark and brooding. However, I knew I would see it sooner or later, and a friend was also interested in going, so off we went to a matinee.

This is not the first time Mr. Spielberg has made a film that leaves you feeling you have immersed yourself rather than simply watched; Schindler's List was another experience of the same type. I would say, though, that the emotional tenor of the two films is very different. Schindler's List evokes horror and pity (among other things), but Lincoln inspired, in me at least, an intense sadness mixed with a painful awareness of the great personal cost of honor and responsibility. There are lighter moments in the film, and Lincoln's legendary sense of humor is glimpsed now and again, but by the end you feel that you have witnessed (and truly, participated in) a terrible struggle.

In the middle of a cruel and seemingly interminable war, amid personal tragedy, and in the face of resistance and hostility, even from his allies, Lincoln struggles to secure passage of the 13th Amendment, to abolish slavery. The film details the deals, the personal appeals, the compromises, the shaky alliances, and the strange bedfellows that went into producing a victory for the pro-amendment side. Mr. Spielberg has emphasized that he is a filmmaker, not a historian, so I don't necessarily assume complete faithfulness to actual events. But I think the spirit of the times, and the flavor of the struggle, as incendiary and divisive as it must have been, has been captured in this somber portrait of the era.

Of course, there is a lot of mythology surrounding Lincoln, as with any great leader. He embodies the hero archetype, and although he appears as a near saint in this portrayal, with his patience, wisdom, and compassion, he no doubt had his faults as a human being.  Political expediency was a reality, and others did not always view him as "trustworthy." It appears he was not above using whatever means he could find to accomplish what seemed to him a necessary end.

As is usually true of myth, Lincoln's story is timeless, having parallels in our own recent struggles as a nation to carry on in spite of great polarization. Although we do not perhaps have an issue as momentous as slavery dividing us, we have to contend with differing ideas about the proper course for our country and the best way to achieve prosperity. Again, the two major political parties frequently lock horns and fail to connect when it counts, and the public, too, is divided.

I don't think the divisions we have today create an impassable road block, any more than they did in Lincoln's time. Reasonable people may disagree on the best way to move forward; no one has a monopoly on virtue, intelligence, or truth. One thing I know about conflict resolution is that the way to start is to find the common ground, the place where everyone can stand and say, yes, we all agree on this. It may not be as difficult to find this place as it appears. Some disagreements are more superficial than they might seem to be at first.

I was moved to look up some of Lincoln's writings today, which happens to be the 149th anniversary of the Gettysburg address (and the occasion of Spielberg's commemorative speech in honor of the day at Soldier's National Cemetery). Even if we did not remember Lincoln as a great president, we would have to remember him as a great writer, poetic and eloquent even in the face of tension and opposition. From the First Inaugural Address: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

From the Gettysburg Address: "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

From the Second Inaugural Address: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

What I gather from his words and actions was Lincoln's faith in his country and the ability of those within it to come together (and also to come together with the citizens of other countries). Another archetype emerges from all of this, that of wholeness and integration -- what we experience as the Self, present in our sense of relating to something larger than ourselves (though we also experience wholeness within). I think most people would still agree that we are stronger together than we are apart, whether we are talking of families, communities, nations, or the world at large.

I wish I had written the phrase, "the better angels of our nature," but I didn't. However, that may not stop me from borrowing it for my title, with full credit to Abraham Lincoln. It's in the public domain, so it belongs to all of us now.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Out West

O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely 'twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Once upon a time (two and a half weeks ago) I decided to take a fall break and drive to the West Coast and back. All I can say is it seemed like a good idea at the time. I've never actually driven that far (and it's doubtful ever I'd do it again, not alone, anyway), but at the time, the thought of a little California sunshine was very appealing, and driving seemed the way to go.

If I had known what kind of a trip it would be, I would never have left home. The day I left, it was sunny, hot, and pleasant here, but I went through a number of climate changes before I got back and soon realized I was smart to have packed so many layers (though the two bathing suits I included never got any use). I left in the afternoon, at first driving a familiar stretch of interstate between Lexington and St. Louis, and then stopping for the night about an hour west of the latter. I got a clue that this wouldn't be a normal trip when the desk clerk at the Holiday Inn* (see comments below) did a double-take on seeing me and said that another guest who looked just like me (and was dressed like me, apparently) had just gone up in the elevator. Of course, that was a bit strange, but . . . what the heck. Coincidences happen!

Driving across unfamiliar stretches of Missouri, Oklahoma, and the Texas panhandle, and encountering increasingly unpopulated segments of road, I decided getting through quickly was the best plan, so I drove all night through New Mexico and found myself in Arizona the next morning. Looking for a hotel in the town of Holbrook at first seemed sensible, but on closer examination, I decided a more touristed area would be safer, so I drove on to Flagstaff, where finding a suitable hotel proved challenging. Looking up one that sounded reliable, I discovered it was outside of town, and I drove through miles of forest and desert only to somehow miss it and end up napping in the back seat of my car next to a residential area, waking in the middle of the night and discovering, on the way to get gas, that I had literally been almost next door to a Best Western. I checked in and spent the rest of the night in bed.

Although I was close to the Grand Canyon (which I have never seen, except from the air), I had by that time decided that to get where I was going was highly desirable, and that perhaps I would see the Grand Canyon on the way back. Pressing on, I crossed the state of Arizona, not before discovering in Kingman that my passenger side door had been unlocked (probably while I was at the Best Western). Since I had lost my keys (at home) back in the summer, that gave me pause, but by a strange twist of fate, it was actually lucky for me that this happened because I had just accidentally locked the driver's side door (with the motor running) and was thus equal parts perplexed and overjoyed to find the passenger door unlocked. After somehow getting on the interstate going the wrong way for 20 minutes (Arizona, your signage?), I righted myself and headed for the California border at Needles.

Now I have spent considerable time in California, but driving across the desert in a car was totally new to me. I had been here before on a train, but everything looks quite different when you're in a car, especially by yourself. By this time, it was dark and a little scary. An unexpected light moment came when the border guard, prior to giving me an inspection pass, asked if I had any live animals with me. I'm not sure why that was funny (three days in a car, and you get a little punchy), but I laughed and told him, "Just me."

I drove to Ventura County, almost home ground for me since I went to school next door in Santa Barbara County. I hadn't realized finding hotels in October could be such a challenge, but evidently October is high tourist season in some parts of the West. I ended up staying in Santa Paula, a nice town though a small one, but checked out of my hotel on Sunday, earlier than planned, to head down to L.A.

All I wanted was a good night's sleep in a decent hotel, and a little sightseeing the next day. I thought of going to the Getty Center. When I got to Santa Monica, I started to stay at one of the fancy hotels near the beach, but a trip to my room convinced me otherwise. I was stuck in a remote corner of the hotel, out of sight of anyone else, with a lock that didn't seem to quite work (this became a theme on the trip). I hauled my suitcase back down to the desk and told the clerk I didn't like the room. She offered to reassign me, but having gotten a bad vibe from this experience, I told her I'd look elsewhere.

I can't honestly say why, but I was no longer sure I really felt comfortable in L.A. I drove around for a while, decided to go down to San Diego, did so, tried to find a hotel district, and somehow found myself on the residential side of town, no hotels in sight. (Finding a hotel in the dark when you're tired isn't always as easy as you might think, along with the fact that experiences of the last couple of days had me leery.) Since I knew no one in San Diego, I decided after all to drive back to L.A.

The next day's adventures included going for what was intended to be a short walk, getting dehydrated, not being able to find my car, almost deciding to fly home in panic and frustration, and finally locating my car with the aid of the police. The police helped me look through my things to discover if anything was missing and told me to call the next day if I discovered anything amiss later on. After they left, I noticed once again that my passenger side door was unlocked. Wow! After spending the night at a favorite hotel in Santa Monica, I called in to report this the next day.

Could the trip get any stranger? Well, yes, actually, it could. After I ate lunch in Malibu, bad fish forced an emergency stop in Santa Barbara. I was ready to call it a night, and the hotel seemed nice enough, but after taking a shower and lying down for a while, I became increasingly uneasy about the door -- which did not have a dead bolt lock -- and the open transom above the curtains. I checked out that night, and after driving north in search of another place to stay, I suddenly wanted to be gone and decided to head home.

On Halloween, I found myself crossing the wide open spaces of Nevada, trying with difficulty to reach friends and family on my cell phone. Since this saga has already gone on too long, I won't go into detail about my unsuccessful attempt to see family in Idaho, the invitation from a friend in San Francisco to come and visit, my drive back to California and the Hotel of the Windy Corridors in Stockton, the impossibility of finding a parking space in San Francisco on a Friday night, and an overnight stay in Morgan Hill with a hotel full of lacrosse players. Heading east the next day, I experienced one of the few moments of joy and ease on this trip as I passed through the fertile hills around Gilroy, where they grow many things, including garlic -- whose scent suffused the air. The hills were enveloping and welcoming, and I was sorry to leave them behind, reminders of happier times on previous trips.

The scenery from Bakersfield to Barstow, and then on to Needles, across the mountains and down to the desert, was magnificent, but I felt like I was viewing it distantly, on a very small television. It was like something out of an old Western, especially the closer I got to Needles. I have heard that California is many states rolled into one, and I certainly had proof of it on this trip. I saw parts that I had never seen before, or had never seen by car, which makes a big difference; even the familiar parts looked strange, as if they had been flipped upside down. As a child, I remember once or twice experiencing a strange sense of disorientation, in which suddenly directions seemed to have reversed themselves when I came to a familiar place from a different angle. That sensation was something like what I experienced on this trip.

I stopped not long after dark in Kingman, Arizona, where I ended up in a room with a loose safety latch; traveled on the next day to Amarillo, Texas, where I had the identical problem with a safety latch in a different hotel chain; and finally decided I was getting home no matter what, so that I drove carefully and methodically across parts of five states before crossing back into Kentucky and collapsing at a Sheraton on the outskirts of Lexington. I took what was almost a semi-vacation that last day, going to the mall, buying chocolates, and shopping. I came back to my apartment the next day, Wednesday, and thought about kissing the door frame once I was inside. (I was so tired, I forgot.)

I could (and will) call this trip "The Vacation That Wasn't" or "I Dreamed a Dream of Driving to California, But This Was Not It." I could also call it "The Magical Mystery Tour," though my use of the word "magical" isn't meant to connote anything positive. I could call it "Into the Wild," though that title, too, has been taken. Or with the Grateful Dead, I could truthfully say, "What a Long Strange Trip It's Been," and be perfectly accurate.

One moment of great clarity stands out: I was driving west on I-80 in Nevada, whose harsh and immense landscape might as well have been the surface of the moon, when a great loneliness came over me. The only thing I could think of was my own apartment, my books on the shelves, and how much I wanted to see them. I was so far from anyone I knew, or anything familiar, and all I wanted was to get back home. And so I did, eventually. And here I am.

Like Dorothy, who wanted to leave Kansas so badly, I find myself, at the end of the yellow brick road, back where I started, if a little worse for wear. I was looking at a picture of myself that I took after getting home and thought, "Wow, the wear and tear is kind of showing." It brought to mind what Indiana Jones famously said: "It's not the years, it's the mileage" (literally).

On the other hand, it may not be anything that a good night's sleep and a little moisturizer can't cure. Check with me in a couple of days.

And if you yourself are on the road, drive safely.